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Community Conversations Toolkit

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Communities participating in the e-Vermont project all had an opportunity to design new projects that used online tools to meet local goals. Designing these local projects began with conversations that asked three basic questions:

  1. What is the biggest opportunity or challenge before our community that we (the people in the room) want to work on over the next year?
  2. What actions could take advantage of that opportunity or address the challenge?
  3. What are the broadband-related tool(s) that best support these actions? And what offline strategies might we need to make them successful?

Asking these questions, in this order, ensures that a community's goals, not the technology, drove each project. They also offer a starting point and place in the conversation for community members who don't see themselves as tech savvy. For examples of the kinds of projects e-Vermont communities chose, check out the community stories section. 

Of course, there are other considerations beyond these three questions for holding an effective community conversation, and this toolkit elaborates on a few of them:

Models of Community Conversations

The Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) was the lead organizer for e-Vermont, and convened the community conversations about broadband use. VCRD has over a decade of experience bringing together communities to develop their shared goals and take action towards those goals. Most notable is the VCRD Community Visit program, described in detail here.  

The Sustainable Broadband Adoption grant program (e-Vermont's principal funder) has invested in a  variety of approaches to encourage broadband adoption in communities nationwide. Some projects bring suites of services in the same sectors as the e-Vermont partners, others add components not directly addressed in e-Vermont, such as telemedicine, legal aid online, or outreach in Native American communities. Other projects focus on subsidizing the cost of Internet.

All projects have an element of community engagement, outreach, and participation. Some programs place more emphasis than others on communities identifying their core needs first, then matching Internet tools and projects to those community needs. Examples of this emphasis include: 

  • Connecting Alabama A campaign that combines mapping broadband availability and working with Regional Broadband Action Teams to develop deployment & adoption plans that respond to local issues, opportunities & needs.
  • Axiom Technologies Axiom Technologies works in Washington County, Maine, building broadband applications for rural healthcare providers, farmers and fishermen.
  • CK Blandin Foundation The CK Blandin Foundation has a variety of rural community based initiatives to increase broadband utilization.

Check out all the Sustainable Broadband Adoption projects here.

Convening the Conversation

Convening a community-scale conversation about use of broadband tools is challenging. In 2006-2007, VCRD faced a similar challenge in its Creative Economy effort, which brought together economic development, arts, and culture in Vermont communities. The toolbox developed during that program includes a guide to bringing diverse community members together to set commong goals.

BroadbandUSA has also produced an outreach manual for broadband adoption programs. 

In April 2016, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) published "Planning a Community Broadband Roadmap: A Toolkit for Local and Tribal Governments." It offers tips and advice, and provides links to resources and tools. The goal of this publication is to help communities expand broadband access locally to create jobs, improve educational opportunities, promote economic development, spur private investment and facilitate the delivery of essential social services to their citizens. VCRD is proud to have contributed to this effort.

Any conversation about how a community uses online tools will include the question of how to make sure everyone in the community is able to use those tools. Nationally, this work is called building digitally inclusive communities.

The National Broadband Plan (2010) calls for a “fully connected America”, measured not only in infrastructure but also in how broadband resources are used. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is taking the lead on building a plan to support digitally inclusive communities, where everyone has the ability to use online tools. They published their draft framework in late 2011.  

The lead partners in this national effort are IMLS, Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington, and the International City / County Management Association.

Examples of how e-Vermont addresses digital inclusion appear in the toolkits on:

Sustaining the Conversation

Interactive tools mean we don't have to stop at one-time gatherings for our conversations - we can have ongoing conversations through online community forums. A well managed platform will both draw neighbors online and encourage dialogue in the real world. These tools are convenient for people used to being online and can be the best introduction for people who haven't yet started using the Internet on a regular basis.

e-Vermont partner Front Porch Forum is one successful example of this kind of platform. The Front Porch Forum blog provides a lot of information, and insight, into community building through online conversations. Thanks to the Vermont Digital Economy Project's work with Front Porch Forum, every town in Vermont now has a Front Porch Forum.

For other examples, check out the Knight Foundation, a national organization deeply interested in how new media approaches and technologies can create more informed, engaged communities. The Knight Foundation provides both a toolkit for community information sharing and resources from its yearly Knight Information Challenge seminars.

Front Porch Forum received a Knight News Challenge award in 2010.

Additional Resources

  • Check out these resources for information that can support your community efforts to integrate online tools with strategies for local projects and planning:
  • Vermont's Regional Planning Commissions convened Regional Technology Teams in 2010 to discuss ways to optimize broadband use in their regions and in 2012 published a report on their findings.
  • Florida State University's Information Institute has released (2011) a training module for community-based broadband planning.
  • Ghost of Midnight: The Front Porch Forum blog about fostering community, sharing stories from Vermont towns and national resources.
  • Knight Foundation: National foundation supporting innovative ideas that improve how news & information is shared and keep individuals engaged in a vibrant community life. See especially the "What We're Learning" section.
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services: Lead partner for planning a national strategy to achieve digitally inclusive communities.
  • Pew Internet & American Life Project: Data on the impact of Internet and similar technologies on daily life. See in particular the communities section.
  • Digital Communities: A blog reporting on stories of connected communities from around the country.
  • Broadband USA: Website reporting on the work of organizations receiving broadband grants through American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funds, including broadband adoption initiatives.
  • Another version of community conversations is citizen journalism. The designers of iBrattleboro, a simple site where citizens of Brattleboro can post stories, have written their guide to using a content management system here.